Unionization drops in Alabama but remains higher than other Southern states
The share of union workers in Alabama fell last year, but the state remains the most unionized in the South, according to government data released last month.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Alabama had 138,000 union members in 2017, 7.4 percent of all wage earners. That share was down 8.6 percent from 2016, the 10th steepest decline in the country. Union density held steady nationally at 10.7 percent.
Yet, the 7.4 percent union penetration rate — while low compared to the national average — remains above its neighbors. The next-highest rate in the South is Florida, where 5.6 percent of the workforce belonged to unions in 2017.
Union membership has been declining across the country for decades.
“Generally speaking, unions have lost a lot of clout in bargaining power,” said Keivan Deravi, an economics professor at the Auburn University at Montgomery.
Semoon Chang, a retired University of South Alabama economics professor, attributed the drop in Alabama to the growth of manufacturers that have made efforts to keep unions out.
“They have been treating employees very well, partly to prevent, partly to stop workers from being unionized,” he said. “There is less of a need for unionization. I don’t think people really want to join unions.”
Nationally, 34.4 percent of government workers were union members, compared with just 6.5 percent of private-sector employees. Chang attributed Alabama’s comparatively high unionization rate to the legacy of those public-sector unions, like the Alabama Education Association.
“In Alabama, public-employee unions have been particularly strong,” he said.
Deravi said Alabama’s policies have kept union membership low. For instance, employees are not required to join a union even if a majority of workers at a company vote to organize workers. Including non-members covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by union, 8.1 percent of the state’s workers have union representation.
“Generally, it doesn’t surprise me … We are a right-to-work state,” Deravi said.
Those policies have helped attract foreign investment, such as the recently announced $1.6 billion manufacturing facility that Toyota and Mazda plan to build in Huntsville, Deravi said.
“It’s important to them to not be unionized,” he said. “And it’s a selling point for them.”
Alabama is not alone as a right-to-work state. Its laws are similar to those in other Southern states. So what accounts for higher union penetration in the Heart of Dixie? Deravi said other states rely less on manufacturing, where unions traditionally are more common.
“We have a larger concentration of manufacturing, durable and non-durable,” he said. “There will be some pockets of unions, enclaves, because of the manufacturing.”
Deravi said Florida relies more heavily on the tourism industry, where unions are weaker. Mississippi, he added, has gambling — another industry where unions have had little success in organizing workers, at least in the South.
Deravi predicted that unions will continue to press for a foothold in Alabama as the manufacturing sector grows.
“The targeting will be there … You will get that pull,” he said. “As you attract industry, you will get that.”
South Carolina has the smallest share of union members in the country — just 2.6 percent. North Carolina (3.4 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), and Georgia and Arizona (4 percent each) follow. At the other end of the scale, New York has the highest union density at 23.8 percent. Hawaii (21.3 percent), Washington State (18.8 percent), Alaska (18.1 percent) and Connecticut (16.9 percent) round out the top five.